This summer we had the opportunity to speak with documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado about his long-term approach to his subjects and his newest project, Genesis, on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto through September 2.
Salgado is a documentary photographer known for working on projects for an extended length of time. He explained that it takes “time to develop ideas, time to understand what was going on in front of me, that, you see, you photograph a moment, it’s just a fraction of a second, but…to know from where a photograph comes, sometimes it’s longer.”
He shared about his projects Workers and Migrations and how his understanding and connection to each subject came with time and through his life experiences. Workers had its roots in Salgado’s background in economics, his understanding of economic models and his deep respect for the working class. Salgado and his wife, Lélia Wanick Salgado, immigrated to France in 1969 because they were forbidden to return to their home country of Brazil because of Salgado’s involvement fighting against the military dictatorship. This experience of exile was the seed for his Migrations project. “These are the stories that are a big slice of my life, of my beliefs, of my ideology, of my ethics,” he said.
We asked about the inspiration for his most recent project, Genesis. Salgado said that he and his wife had gone back to their home in Brazil and were shocked by the environmental destruction they saw. So they decided to re-plant a forest. They planted two million trees, all species native to the area. Then, he continued, “When we saw this forest growing, all new life coming to it, all the water returning to the planet, part of the planet that was destroyed, environment that was destroyed, and the birds…we had a big wish to do a story about the environment…and we conceived the Genesis project.” He stressed the fact that he and his wife are partners and conceived of the project together.
“I went to photograph Genesis with a big curiosity towards the planet,” Salgado explained. “I wanted to discover the planet. I had never made one portrait of another animal than the human animal, than us. I went to photograph the others. It was necessary for me to learn how to photograph them. I had never made pictures of landscape, only human landscapes. I had photographed our species inside his environment where landscape was a background, but never photographed a landscape as a landscape. And I went to photograph landscape as a landscape.”
And, he said, “We took eight years to do this story.” The project covered thirty-two stories, and he photographed four a year. During these eight years, Salgado also made the switch from film to digital. He explained that the airport security conditions had become complicated, and he had lost film because of damage from X-rays. So he tried digital—a Canon EOS Mark III—and he saw the quality was as good as the Pentax 645 medium-format camera he had been using. He uses the viewfinder to photograph (rather than the LCD screen), and he makes contact sheets of his photos. When he travels, he brings a lot of memory cards with him, but no computers or hard drives.
We asked Salgado what suggestions he had for emerging photographers, and he said to attend or observe “a class of sociology, of anthropology, of economics, of geopolitics. Try to have a background…to understand a little bit better the society that we live in…” Salgado explained that it takes time to understand your subject—to live in it—and that one must have time to do it. “You create your story.”